Emerging Australian Ideal #3: On Guard

August 14, 2014

In democracies like Australia, privacy is a basic right – “the right to be left alone.” But this fundamental right is being challenged in a data-saturated economy of ‘free’ services. This economy operates on the basic principle that if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. Your information—i.e. your privacy—becomes transactional, something to be bought and sold and profited from, rather an inalienable right. Privacy has become a tradable good, and its price tag suggests that it is a luxury good.

The Evolution of Privacy and Sociality

Privacy concerns, of course, are not new. Zizi Papacharissi, Professor of Communications at the University of Illinois-Chicago, explains: “Sociality has always required some (voluntary) abandonment of privacy. In order to become social, we must give up some of our private time and space, so as to share it with others.” But sociality in the 21st century, through social media, raises questions over the word voluntary: if we don’t know what we’re giving away, in what sense is it voluntary?  

Our digital social lives are privately public, with every tid-bit of information recorded, analyzed and on-sold to advertisers – often without our knowledge. What’s more, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the trail of digital breadcrumbs: participation in social media is an unspoken clause of the social contract. Papacharissi explains:

“byte by byte, our personal information is exchanged as currency, to gain digital access to friends. Personal information is commercialized into the public realm, with little input from the individual in the process. Slowly, privacy defined as the right to be left alone attains the characteristics of a luxury commodity.”

Privacy is a luxury

Papacharissi presents three arguments to support the notion that privacy is a luxury commodity:

1. Inaccessibility

Protecting privacy assumes a certain level of computer literacy, education, and income. The “privacy divide”, or “social stratification”, between the haves and have nots, therefore reflects broader societal inequalities.  

2. Disproportionately costly

Julia Angwin, writing in the New York Times, reflected on the expense she incurred in the process of protecting her privacy:

“[I purchased] a $230 service that encrypted my data in the Internet cloud; a $35 privacy filter to shield my laptop screen from coffee-shop voyeurs; and a $420 subscription to a portable Internet service to bypass untrusted connections — protect me from criminals and hackers. Other products, like a $5-a-month service that provides me with disposable email addresses and phone numbers, protect me against the legal (but, to me, unfair) mining and sale of my personal data.”

Angwin draws an analogy with the early days of the organic food movement, when organic certified products were prohibitively expensive – reserved for the upper-middle class. Over time, the organic food movement mainstreamed, and privacy protection may well too, but for the moment it remains disproportionately costly for the average Australian.

3. Inverse relationship with social benefits

The easiest way to protect privacy is to abstain from digital all together. However, there is an obvious social opportunity cost for those who refuse to engage in emails, social media, and other digital platforms; the decision to abstain in digital activities socially isolates the individual from those friends, family and colleagues who organise their social lives online.

Growing Awareness – But The Tipping Point Is Still to Come

Privacy is certainly an issue that Australians are increasingly cognisant of: 70% of respondents in The Lab’s independent quantitative study expressed concern over the ways in which big companies like Google are using their data. Interestingly, however, 70% of Australians also believe that they have taken all possible steps to protect their privacy. But what are the chances that 70% of Australians have encrypted data clouds? Or subscription to an internet portal service that bypasses untrusted connections? Or disposable email addresses? Given the laborious, time-consuming and expensive realities of protecting data, it’s clear that there is a difference between perception and reality.  

Whilst there is no doubt that Wikileaks and Snowden brought the privacy debate into public consciousness, the fact that 70% of Australians believe they have taken all possible steps to protect their privacy suggests that the tipping point—in both awareness and alarm—is still to come. And, when it does, brands that view privacy as a normal good, rather than a luxury good, will find themselves in the box seat.